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Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Belfast is a semi-autobiographical film about Branagh’s early life with his family in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the late 1960s. The film centres on the 9-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) who tries to come to terms with the beginning of the Troubles in his close neighbourhood. His mother (Caitriona Balfe), father (Jamie Dornan) and brother (Lewis McAskie) try and make ends meet and navigate the rapidly deteriorating world of Belfast, and the question grows whether to leave for a better life, leaving behind Buddy’s grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds), or stay and try to make it work.
In many ways, Belfast is Branagh’s Roma. A semi-autobiographical film set in a period of the director’s youth, constructed out of memory of specific people in his life, specific events, moments from history witnessed through innocent eyes, exact placement of shops and buildings that only the director could remember, and all shot on digital black-and-white. This is a personal experience for Branagh, linking himself back to his early life in a country during a tumultuous time. What is most remarkable is that, like Roma, Belfast never holds you back with its specificity of experience. You feel welcomed into a world so real that you could practically smell the tea and feel the sun on your face.
What was most refreshing was seeing a film about Irish people and their lives and not have it just be about how miserable and poor Ireland is. It has a troubled past, literally, but the people are full of life and love and an energy that keeps them going through hardship and strife. Case in point: not only does Haris Zambarloukos’s black-and-white cinematography highlight the bright summer light, but the frames themselves are filled with warm and lovely characters, most joyously presented after a funeral where the wake is a musical celebration of life and passion.
One distinctly fascinating aspect of Branagh’s film is how he presents art’s impact as well as religious tolerance on youth. The conflict of the country bubbles in the background until it comes storming into Buddy’s life, changing his view on the world even with little context he could understand. The true escape for him and his family is watching classic shows on television, seeing “A Christmas Carol” performed on stage, and going to the picture house to see the “filums”. The latter two are presented in full colour, an obvious theme of art bringing life and warmth to people’s grey lives, but it also shows that it can be the only thing people can enjoy when all around them is hardship and despair.
Belfast captures a time and place that feels genuine and inviting, a refreshing perspective for Ireland on screen, and the performances are extraordinary. Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe are illuminating parental figures full of strength and determination that is both inspiring and frightening. Balfe’s monologue on a bus is the film’s high emotional point. Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds give, honestly, some of the finest performances of their careers, and young Jude Hill is a revelation. I do wish for more development from Lewis McAskie’s brother, but that’s my only criticism of the characters.
It is not the most surprising narrative, and you might have seen its character journeys before, but how Kenneth Branagh as a director explores his home and his young life, filled with a beauty and pain, sorrow and joy, violence and peace, innocence and experience, is overwhelmingly touching. Belfast is bringing a director back to high form, presenting excellent actors at the top of their craft, and a voice to the real people who shape us all.
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